An Artificial Certainty: Stanislaw Lem’s Hospital of the Transfiguration

Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1971), a sci-fi film full of slow poetry, led me to the author Stanislaw Lem, whose book inspired it. Since I only had the film to go by, I was expecting something similar to Tarkovsky, but Lem is a different experience. More like the feeling after reading The Metamorphosis a few times and finally realizing how funny Kafka is–one of Gregor Samsa’s first thoughts upon his great awakening is what a bummer his job is and that he’s going to be late to said bummer. Tarkovsky’s great, but not funny. Lem can be hilarious. 

In Solaris, Lem’s outer space is our inner space. The Solarists’ theories about the nature of the planet are theories of mind and existence. His first novel, Hospital of the Transfiguration, while not the sci-fi that he’s known for, plays with the outer/inner dichotomy of Solaris as he makes equivalences from an actual “madhouse” to the madhouse of the world. The story revolves around a young psychiatrist who is going to work at a Polish psychiatric hospital as Germany is invading. The book asks questions like: How do we live with and among each other? Can we define “normal”? He shows how the world outside the asylum makes less rational sense than the world inside, and he also documents the brutality in both. Hospital is said to be “slightly autobiographical.” How much, I’m not sure, but it must have struck some kind of official nerves since it was published almost a decade after it was written because it got censored.

While not my favorite Lem novel so far, it is his first and worth reading. Kafka comes up a lot in reference to Lem, and I would say that there are elements that reminded me of another World War II novel that’s not necessarily a war novel–Vonnegut’s Mother Night.

Here are a few quotes from the book.

Some thoughts on writing:
“Writing is a damnable compulsion. Someone who can stand and watch the person he loves most die and, without wanting to, pick out everything worth describing to the last convulsion, that’s a real writer. A philistine would protest: how awful! But it’s not awful, it’s just suffering. It’s not a career, not something you pick like a desk job. The only writers who have any peace are the ones who don’t write. And there are some like that. They wallow in a sea of possibilities. To express a thought, you first have to limit it, and that means kill it. Every word I speak robs me of a thousand others, and every line I write means giving up another. I have to create an artificial certainty. When those flakes of plaster fall away, I sense that deep down, behind the golden fragments, lies an unspeakable abyss. It’s there, for sure, but every attempt to reach it ends in failure.” (68)

A combination of “peeling the onion” and the emperor’s new clothes:
“The monarch ruled an enormous kingdom. People for a thousand miles around obeyed him. Once, when he had fallen asleep on his throne in boredom, his courtiers decided to undress him and carry him in the bedchamber. They took off his burgundy coat, under which shined a purple, gold-embroidered mantle. Under that was a silk robe, all stars and suns. Then a bright robe woven with pearls. Then a robe shining with rubies. They removed one robe after another until a great shimmering heap stood beside the throne. They looked around in terror. ‘Where is our king?’ they cried. A wealth of precious robes lay before them, but there was no trace of a living being. The title of the story was ‘On Majesty, or, Peeling an Onion.'” (189)

Political Theory:
“Politicians are too stupid for us to be able to predict their actions through reason.” (60) 

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